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Fitness: Get Information on Health Benefits

Energize Your Life! Who said physical activity is all work and no play? In fact, it can be just the opposite! There is no need to think of strenuous workouts that are painful and boring. Instead, imagine doing fun physical activities you enjoy and look forward to. Do physical activity for enjoyment and watch the health benefits follow!

The importance of physical activity

The evidence is growing and is more convincing than ever! People of all ages who are generally inactive can improve their health and well-being by becoming active at a moderate-intensity on a regular basis.

Regular physical activity substantially reduces the risk of dying of coronary heart disease, the nation’s leading cause of death, and decreases the risk for stroke, colon cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It also helps to control weight; contributes to healthy bones, muscles, and joints; reduces falls among older adults; helps to relieve the pain of arthritis; reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression; and is associated with fewer hospitalizations, physician visits, and medications. Moreover, physical activity need not be strenuous to be beneficial; people of all ages benefit from participating in regular, moderate-intensity physical activity, such as 30 minutes of brisk walking five or more times a week.

Despite the proven benefits of physical activity, more than 50% of American adults do not get enough physical activity to provide health benefits. 25% of adults are not active at all in their leisure time. Activity decreases with age and is less common among women than men and among those with lower income and less education.

Insufficient physical activity is not limited to adults. More than a third of
young people in grades 9-12 do not regularly engage in vigorous-intensity
physical activity.

This section explains why you should be active, how inactivity may hurt your health, and how physical activity can benefit everyone.

Why should I be active?

“It’s easier to maintain your health than regain it.” -Dr. Ken Cooper

Physical activity can bring you many health benefits. People who enjoy participating in moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity physical activity on a regular basis benefit by lowering their risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, non-insulin-dependent (type 2) diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, and colon cancer by 30-50% (USDHHS, 1996). Additionally, active people have lower premature death rates than people who are the least active.

Regular physical activity can improve health and reduce the risk of premature death in the following ways:

  • Reduces the risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD) and the risk of dying from CHD
  • Reduces the risk of stroke
  • Reduces the risk of having a second heart attack in people who have already had one heart attack
  • Lowers both total blood cholesterol and triglycerides and increases high-density lipoproteins (HDL or the “good” cholesterol)
  • Lowers the risk of developing high blood pressure
  • Helps reduce blood pressure in people who already have hypertension
  • Lowers the risk of developing non-insulin-dependent (type 2) diabetes mellitus
  • Reduces the risk of developing colon cancer
  • Helps people achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • Reduces feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Promotes psychological well-being and reduces feelings of stress
  • Helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints
  • Helps older adults become stronger and better able to move about without falling or becoming excessively fatigued

Can a lack of physical activity hurt your health? Evidence shows that those who are not physically active are definitely not helping their health, and may likely be hurting it. The closer we look at the health risks associated with a lack of physical activity, the more convincing it is that Americans who are not yet regularly physically active should become active.




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Can everyone benefit from physical activity?

“Do it, move it, make it happen. No one ever sat their way to success.” -Unknown

The good news about regular physical activity is that everyone can benefit from it (USDHHS, 1996).

  • Older adults: No one is too old to enjoy the benefits of regular physical activity. Evidence indicates that muscle-strengthening exercises can reduce the risk of falling and fracturing bones and can improve the ability to live independently.
  • Parents and children: Parents can help their children maintain a physically active lifestyle by providing encouragement and opportunities for physical activity. Families can plan outings and events that allow and encourage everyone in the family to be active.
  • Teenagers: Regular physical activity improves strength, builds lean muscle, and decreases body fat. Activity can build stronger bones to last a lifetime.
  • People trying to manage their weight: Regular physical activity burns calories while preserving lean muscle mass. Regular physical activity is a key component of any weight-loss or weight-management effort.
  • People with high blood pressure:Regular physical activity helps lower blood pressure.
  • People with physical disabilities, including arthritis: Regular physical activity can help people with chronic, disabling conditions improve their stamina and muscle strength. It also can improve psychological well-being and quality of life by increasing the ability to perform the activities of daily life.
  • Everyone under stress, including persons experiencing anxiety or depression:Regular physical activity improves one’s mood, helps relieve depression, and increases feelings of well-being.

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What are the recommendations for increasing fitness for youth, adults, and seniors?

There is good news for all Americans. Scientific evidence shows that physical activity done at a moderate-intensity level can produce health benefits (USDHHS, 1996). If people have been sedentary, they can improve their health and well-being with regular, moderate levels of activity each day.

Those who participate in moderate- to vigorous-intensity activities regularly should be encouraged and supported in their efforts to continue. While activity at a higher intensity or performed longer offers more health benefits, this level of activity may not be a realistic goal for everyone, at least not to start with. Many Americans, for whom the term “exercise” brings up negative images and emotions, can celebrate the good news by setting a new personal goal-achieving and enjoying the benefits of a regularly active lifestyle that includes a variety of moderate- and/or vigorous-intensity activities.

Adults should strive to meet either of the following physical activity recommendations. See Privacy Policy. I also agree to receive emails from MedicineNet and I understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet subscriptions at any time.

When is a medical evaluation necessary?

Experts advise that people with chronic diseases, such as a heart condition, arthritis, diabetes, or high blood pressure, should talk to their doctor about what types and amounts of physical activity are appropriate. If you have a chronic disease and have not already done so, talk to your doctor before beginning a new physical activity program.

If you have symptoms that could be due to a chronic disease, you should have these symptoms evaluated, whether you are active or inactive. If you plan to start a new activity program, take the opportunity to get these symptoms evaluated. Symptoms of particular importance to evaluate include chest pain (especially chest pain that is brought on by exertion), loss of balance (especially loss of balance leading to a fall), dizziness, and passing out (loss of consciousness).

Making physical activity a part of your life

“You can’t change where you came from. You can change where you are going.”
-Anonymous

Just knowing that physical activity is good for us doesn’t mean that we’ll easily be able to make it part of our daily routines-it’s sometimes difficult to adopt new habits. But it’s important to remember that you can start out slowly and work your way up to a higher level of activity.

This section provides ideas for how to make physical activity part of your life and how to do it safely.

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Components of physical activity

What does it mean to be physically “fit?” Physical fitness is defined as “a set of attributes that people have or achieve that relates to the ability to perform physical activity” (USDHHS, 1996). In other words, it is more than being able to run a long distance or lift a lot of weight at the gym. Being fit is not defined only by what kind of activity you do, how long you do it, or at what level of intensity. While these are important measures of fitness, they only address single areas. Overall fitness is made up of five main components:

  1. Cardiorespiratory endurance
  2. Muscular strength
  3. Muscular endurance
  4. Body composition
  5. Flexibility

In order to assess your level of fitness, look at all five components together.

What is “cardiorespiratory endurance (cardiorespiratory fitness)?”

Cardiorespiratory endurance is the ability of the body’s circulatory and respiratory systems to supply fuel during sustained physical activity (USDHHS, 1996 as adapted from Corbin & Lindsey, 1994). To improve your cardiorespiratory endurance, try activities that keep your heart rate elevated at a safe level for a sustained length of time such as walking, swimming, or bicycling. The activity you choose does not have to be strenuous to improve your cardiorespiratory endurance. Start slowly with an activity you enjoy, and gradually work up to a more intense pace.

What is “muscular strength?”

Muscular strength is the ability of the muscle to exert force during an activity (USDHHS, 1996 as adapted from Wilmore & Costill, 1994). The key to making your muscles stronger is working them against resistance, whether that be from weights or gravity. If you want to gain muscle strength, try exercises such as lifting weights or rapidly taking the stairs.

What is “muscular endurance?”

Muscular endurance is the ability of the muscle to continue to perform without fatigue (USDHHS, 1996 as adapted from Wilmore & Costill, 1994). To improve your muscle endurance, try cardiorespiratory activities such as walking, jogging, bicycling, or dancing.

What is “body composition?”

Body composition refers to the relative amount of muscle, fat, bone, and other vital parts of the body (USDHHS, 1996 as adapted from Corbin and Lindsey, 1994). A person’s total body weight (what you see on the bathroom scale) may not change over time. But the bathroom scale does not assess how much of that body weight is fat and how much is lean mass (muscle, bone, tendons, and ligaments). Body composition is important to consider for health and managing your weight!

What is “flexibility?”

Flexibility is the range of motion around a joint (USDHHS, 1996 as adapted from Wilmore & Costill, 1994). Good flexibility in the joints can help prevent injuries through all stages of life. If you want to improve your flexibility, try activities that lengthen the muscles such as swimming or a basic stretching program.

Common physical activity and fitness terms

Calorie: A measure of energy from food. (3,500 kilocalories of food energy = 1 pound of body weight). Also the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1° C (1000 calories = 1 kilocalorie). An interesting fact: When we see “Calories” on a food label it is actually measuring kilocalories.

Cardiorespiratory fitness: (also called aerobic endurance or aerobic fitness). Cardiorespiratory endurance is the ability of the body’s circulatory and respiratory systems to supply fuel and oxygen during sustained physical activity.

Exercise: Exercise is physical activity that is planned or structured. It involves repetitive bodily movement done to improve or maintain one or more of the components of physical fitness-cardiorespiratory endurance (aerobic fitness), muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition.

Household physical activity: Household physical activity includes (but is not limited to) activities such as sweeping floors, scrubbing, washing windows, and raking the lawn.

Inactivity is not engaging in any regular pattern of physical activity beyond daily functioning.

Kilocalorie: The amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water 1° C. Kilocalorie is the ordinary calorie discussed in food or exercise energy-expenditure tables and food labels.

Leisure-time physical activity: Leisure-time physical activity is exercise, sports, recreation, or hobbies that are not associated with activities as part of one’s regular job duties, household, or transportation.

MET:The standard metabolic equivalent, or MET, level. This unit is used to estimate the amount of oxygen used by the body during physical activity. 1 MET = the energy (oxygen) used by the body as you sit quietly, perhaps while talking on the phone or reading a book. The harder your body works during the activity, the higher the MET.

  • Any activity that burns 3 to 6 METs is considered moderate-intensity physical activity.
  • Any activity that burns
  • 6 METs is considered vigorous-intensity physical activity.

Moderate-intensity physical activity:Moderate-intensity physical activity refers to a level of effort in which a person should experience:

  • Some increase in breathing or heart rate
  • a “perceived exertion” of 11 to 14 on the Borg scale
    • the effort a healthy individual might expend while walking briskly, mowing the lawn, dancing, swimming, or bicycling on level terrain, for example.
  • 3 to 6 metabolic equivalents (METs); or
  • any activity that burns 3.5 to 7 Calories per minute (kcal/min)

Occupational physical activity: Occupational physical activity is completed regularly as part of one’s job. It includes activities such as walking, hauling, lifting, pushing, carpentry, shoveling, and packing boxes.

Physical activity: Physical activity is any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that result in an expenditure of energy.

Physical fitness: Physical fitness is a set of attributes a person has in regards to a person’s ability to perform physical activities that require aerobic fitness, endurance, strength, or flexibility and is determined by a combination of regular activity and genetically inherited ability.

Regular physical activity: A pattern of physical activity is regular if activities are performed:

  • most days of the week, preferably daily;
  • 5 or more days of the week if moderate-intensity activities (in bouts of at least 10 minutes for a total of at least 30 minutes per day); or
  • 3 or more days of the week if vigorous-intensity activities (for at least 20-60 minutes per session).

Note: These are minimum recommendations, greater health outcomes can be achieved by doing additional types activities and/or increasing time spent doing activities.

Transportation physical activity: Transportation physical activity is walking, biking or wheeling (for wheelchair users), or similar activities to and from places such as: work, school, place of worship, and stores.

Vigorous-intensity physical activity: Vigorous-intensity physical activity may be intense enough to represent a substantial challenge to an individual and refers to a level of effort in which a person should experience:

  • large increase in breathing or heart rate (conversation is difficult or “broken”)
  • a “perceived exertion” of 15 or greater on the Borg scale;
    • the effort a healthy individual might expend while jogging, mowing the lawn with a nonmotorized pushmower, participating in high-impact aerobic dancing, swimming continuous laps, or bicycling uphill, carrying more than 25 lbs up a flight of stairs, standing or walking with more than 50 lbs for example.
  • greater than 6 metabolic equivalents (METs); or
  • any activity that burns more than 7 kcal/ min

Weight-bearing physical activity: Any physical activity that imparts a load or impact (such as jumping or skipping) on the skeleton.

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